Published On Sat Mar 31 2007


By Heather Greenwood Davis Homes and Travel Reporter
If Jeff Swanagan had his way, North Americans would spend less time with their computers and cell phones and a bit more time getting up close and personal with nature.

Swanagan has welcomed families to the Georgia Aquarium since its opening in 2005, but this June will mark the first time that the aquarium is inviting the public to join him on a trip far outside its walls.

Swanagan, the aquarium’s president and executive director, and about 15 guests are heading for South Africa.

And while taking guests on an international field trip is a first for the aquarium, it’s old hat for Swanagan.

“I have done this for 28 years and I’ve gone all over the planet, taking small groups of people on wonderful eco-adventures,” says Swanagan, who was formerly head of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

“I’ve been to Indonesia, South America, Africa. It’s a wonderful thing to do with people that really enjoy the environment.

“You get to travel together and see some extraordinary animals.”

The “Two Oceans Adventure” is a 14-day trip that will take the group to three aquariums and the Centre for Dolphin Studies.

And because no trip to Africa would be complete without it, the group will also take time out to see all the conventional big game.

“This particular trip is land-based, but it hugs the coast. It was actually put together at my request. You’re going to see some beautiful animals without getting wet: Cape fur seals, African penguins and some beautiful whales.”

The whale sightings will be particularly poignant because the southern right whales that will be in South African waters at the time of the visit are cousins to the northern right whales which breed each year off the coast of Georgia, says Swanagan.

But if you think that a trip with animal lovers means lots of trekking through brush and little civilization, think again.

“It’s a little more of a high-end culture than some of the trips I’ve done before,” says Swanagan, laughing.

“This trip is all about fine dining, clean rooms, hot showers, a little shopping and some beautiful wildlife. This is for people who want to see some fantastic animals … they just don’t want to spend three days out in the bush doing it.”

If Swanagan seems jazzed about it, it’s because he is.

“Personally, it’s incredibly rewarding to see the world, to see these great places, and sometimes you get a little sad as you see the degradation of them too, but you also get to see and meet some incredible indigenous people,” he explains. “It helps your world-view and it gives you an immense motivation and appreciation for the wonder and beauty of the planet and I like to do it with people that are fun people and who enjoy that same agenda.”

It’s also an invaluable opportunity for Swanagan to network on behalf of the aquarium.

“The zoos and aquariums, we all like to play some role where we make a difference for wildlife in wild places,” says Swanagan.

Visits to Indonesia netted Sumatran tigers and Komodo dragons in the past, and the Georgia Aquarium has already started a project on coral reef conservation in the Solomon Islands.

On future trips, Dr. Bruce Carlson, the aquarium’s vice-president of education, conservation and exhibits, will take some diving enthusiasts with him to visit the area.

“A group of people will be able to go with Bruce and actually have a little ownership of some of the things we’re doing in these places,” says Swanagan.

“It means we can take friends, donors, and say, `Okay, this is what we’re doing in your city in our facility, but let us show you what we’re also doing in situ in an exotic location like Palau and the Solomon islands’.”

The hands-on approach to nature is one that Swanagan intends to continue at the Aquarium.

It’s a tactic he used with all five of his own children while they were growing up.

Saturday mornings could find the Swanagan kids at nature centres, canoeing or even swimming with manatees in Florida.

While this tour is geared towards an adult clientele, future trips may include opportunities for families.

But Swanagan maintains that for most kids, the backyard holds all the adventure they need.

“It’s not always about riding a rollercoaster. It’s not always about being on a computer,” he says.

“When you have those special experiences with nature, and you do them together, you secure lifelong memories that are priceless.

“You don’t have to go to Africa to do that. That can happen in every community across North America.”

His daughter, now 20, made that point clear to him.

Swanagan says she told him recently that she tells her friends about her trips and they think that it’s “so cool” because their parents haven’t done that with them, adding that those are her “greatest memories.”

“I didn’t know it had resonated like that,” he says. “It really is the little things. I was on cloud nine.”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Saturdays. Reach her at [email protected]